Officials will pay people to use less water from Colorado River Basin in new agreement

DENVER − Federal officials have struck a last-minute deal to pay water users in California, Arizona and Nevada to use less water from the drought-stricken Colorado River for the next several years, staving off a feared collapse of the river system serving 40 million Americans.

The deal targets water use by Native American tribes, water districts and farmers across the West, paying them to voluntarily use about 2.3 million acre-feet less water than they would otherwise be entitled. An acre foot of water is enough to supply about two households for a year. Another 700,000 acre-feet would come from voluntary but uncompensated reductions, officials said.

The water users were under a May 30 federal deadline to find a compromise or face the prospect of unilateral cuts by the federal officials who manage Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which are filled by the Colorado River.

“There are 40 million people, seven states and 30 tribal nations who rely on the Colorado River Basin for basic services such as drinking water and electricity. Today’s announcement is a testament to the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to working with states, tribes and communities throughout the West to find consensus solutions in the face of climate change and sustained drought,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement announcing the deal.

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What are the Colorado River deal specifics?

Although users in seven Western states are legally entitled to use the Colorado River – the other states are Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming – there has never been enough water to supply all of them, and climate change now means even less water is available for drinking, irrigation and farming. California is the single-biggest consumer of Colorado River water, primarily for growing crops that help feed the nation.

The deal announced Monday uses already-approved federal funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, which appropriated more than $5 billion for water conservation. Federal officials are trying to ensure lakes Powell and Mead contain enough water to continue producing hydroelectricity and avoid what's known as "dead pool," when water levels drop below the pipes needed to keep the Colorado River flowing.

In a dead-pool scenario, water that might otherwise be used for drinking or irrigation could be trapped behind either the Hoover or Glen Canyon dam.

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As part of the agreement, federal officials agreed to withdraw their threat of unilateral cuts for now. Federal officials did not say how much water users would be paid to reduce demand, but The New York Times reported the deal is worth about $1.2 billion.

Half of the conservation measures must be implemented by the end of next year, according to the deal, which still needs final approval from one of Haaland's deputies.

What about this winter's heavy snows?

This winter's heavy snows are driving up water levels across the West, including in Lake Powell, where the reservoir is rising almost a foot a day. Experts say that unexpected bounty has given regulators and water users breathing room but caution it's not a solution.

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Climate change experts say the West has been in a drought for at least 20 years, and they expect more reductions in Colorado River flows in the coming decades, which would force further cuts in water use.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Colorado river agreement reached as Feds strike deal with 3 states